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Eating Disorders - an Overview

Definition

Our relationships with food and our bodies can be complicated. Many people experience ups and downs when it comes to how they eat and how they feel about their bodies. When someone experiences a prolonged period or pattern of negative or unhealthy thoughts and behaviours related to food, eating or body image, it may be a sign that they have an eating disorder. Even though the symptoms of eating disorders seem to be all about food and body image, they are often more complicated than just wanting to look a certain way. Eating disorders are a mental illness and actually have very little to do with food, eating, or appearance. Those are merely symptoms of the disorder and how a person’s distress is manifested, but the root of the problem is often much deeper.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses that involve a pattern of disturbed eating habits and thought patterns that are significant enough to get in the way of living a comfortable life. Eating disorders are potentially life-threatening and have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. 

The term "eating disorder" describes a wide range of issues and symptoms, and each person may experience eating disorders differently. Some common eating disorders are listed here, but it’s important to remember that most people don’t fit neatly into a “category”.

There are currently four main types of eating disorders that are most commonly diagnosed:

  • Anorexia nervosa: People with anorexia nervosa have a pattern of restricting their food intake and other ongoing behaviours that interfere with maintaining a weight that is considered healthy for their age, body type, development, etc. They will also have an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming “fat”, and have trouble recognizing how their body really looks, believing they are bigger than they really are. These symptoms occur over a period of at least three months. 
  • Bulimia nervosa: A person with bulimia has a pattern of eating a lot of food in a way that feels “out of control” (binging), followed by extreme efforts to rid themselves of the food (purging). Bulimia can also cause a person to base their self-worth on their weight or shape, and feel that they are overweight regardless of their true weight. These binge/purge episodes occur at least once a week for three months or more.
  • Binge eating disorder: Someone with this eating disorder has a pattern of binge eating (eating an unusually large amount of food within a relatively short period of time, and feeling out of control over what and how much is eaten), followed by troubling feelings of distress, guilt or shame. These binge-eating episodes are not followed by purging behaviours, and happen at least once a week for three months or more.
  • Other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED): If someone has a pattern of disordered eating, body image issues, and other related behaviours that are impairing their functioning and causing them distress, but don’t meet all the criteria for one particular eating disorder, they might be diagnosed with OSFED.

They are not:

  • Lifestyle choices or diets.
  • A sign or result of low intelligence, weakness, or vanity.
  • Something that can be cured by “just eating”.
Myths

Eating disorders are sometimes misunderstood by people who don’t have direct experience with them. Some common myths are:  

Myth: Only girls have eating disorders.

Fact: Eating disorders can affect anyone and while they are believed to be more common in females, current research is showing that up to one-third of eating disorder sufferers are male.

Myth: You can tell who has an eating disorder by looking at them.

Fact: Not everyone who is very thin has an eating disorder, and not everyone who has an eating disorder is very thin. Eating disorders are identified by medical professionals by assessing how someone is thinking and behaving, not by their weight or body shape.

Myth: Anorexia is the only serious eating disorder.

Fact:  All eating disorders are serious. In fact, sometimes bulimia and OSFED can be more dangerous because the physical effects tend to go unnoticed longer than they do it someone who is visibly "sick". Binge eating disorder carries many serious health risks too, and severe psychological/emotional distress occur with all eating disorders.

Myth: Eating disorders are caused by unhealthy and unrealistic images in the media.

Fact: While society and media can contribute to or trigger eating disorders, research has shown that the causes are usually a combination of factors, and not everyone who is exposed to this media develops an eating disorder. Also, eating disorders have been documented as early as the 1800s, long before mass media promoted thin bodies.

Myth: People with eating disorders are just vain and care too much about their looks.

Fact: Eating disorders are a mental illness and actually have very little to do with food, eating, or appearance. Those are merely symptoms of the disorder and how a person’s distress is manifested, but the root of the problem is often much deeper.

Myth: All teenaged girls worry about their weight. Fasting and dieting is a pretty normal phase for them.

Fact: While many young people (male and female) worry about their weight and body shape, it is not “typical” or healthy for a growing person to engage in extreme dieting or fasting in order to lose weight. On top of that, eating disorders are not diets and involve symptoms beyond their food intake. They are mental illnesses that need to be taken seriously.

Myth: Purging always means self-induced vomiting.

Fact: Purging can take place in different ways, including fasting, over-exercising, misusing laxatives, or self induced vomiting. 

References

The information on this page is a simple overview of a complicated health issue. The content has been taken from NEDICNEDA, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM 5). For more in-depth information, please visit these sources or speak to a medical professional.

Ontario – call ConnexOntario to find out where there are mental health supports in your community.

Crisis – in any situation where someone is at risk of hurting themselves or others, call 911 or a local crisis line.

Please see the Help Section for more information and resources.